One afternoon, the unnamed villain (Pay Healy) calls the right restaurant. Stressed manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) is dealing with multiple crises in her ChickWich franchise, ranging from a loss of inventory to spoilage, the rumored visit of a corporate inspector, and the casual disrespect she puts up with from her teenage staff. Once the villain calls her, she puts all this on the back-burner when her employee Becky (Dreama Walker) is accused of theft. The villain is able to get exactly enough information out of Sandra to make it sound like he's legit, and a bewildered Becky is sequestered in Sandra's office. To find the stolen property, the villain insists on a strip search. As his requests escalate, there's always a perfunctory dissent from Sandra or Becky, but he is always able to talk them down with cajoling and threats, and the horror show continues.
The events of Compliance are so heinous and shocking that this film could only be made if it was based on a true story. It is so unbelievable, that if a writer made it all up, it would insult the audience's intelligence. Horrifyingly, upon post-film research, the true-crime aspect is accurate to a disturbing degree, leaving the viewer to wrack their brain and contemplate how this could've happened. Zobel makes a concerted effort to answer that question without making Sandra look like an unrecognizable moron and Becky like an agency-less drone. As the central contact with the villain, Sandra is duped by several methods of coercion, including sympathy for her hard work and professional sounding regulations. Conversely, the villain snows Becky with outright threats and cold reading. These are unrecognizable behaviors on the part of many characters, but the attempt to bridge the gap into recognizability mostly works, especially for a person familiar with how psychics and other con men operate. Compliance stays shocking but Zobel succeeded in keeping my ire away from Sandra and Becky. As Becky, Walker gradually adopts the heartbreaking I'm-not-there mien of the traumatized, while as Sandra, Dowd is too interesting to be repulsive, credulous and enabling as she may be.
In Experimenter, Milgram describes the value of his experiments while he's being questioned about the questionable ethics of their methods. If people can be made aware of their blind spots when it comes to obedience and authority, it might keep them from being manipulated by those eager to take advantage of those weaknesses. The characters in Compliance, and the events that it's based on, are exactly what Milgram's referring to. Some self-knowledge might've kept them from victimizing a teenage girl. Compliance is a harrowing film that somehow keeps escalating, well-made and valuable in its lessons about skepticism but deep into unpleasant territory for someone who's already learned those lessons. The Wikipedia page of the actual event is disturbing enough without seeing it recreated. B-